Monday, January 24, 2011

Wackyland 3: Introducing, the Do-Do

After I’d made my second post about Porky in Wackyland I figured that was enough, at least for now. To be sure, I’d noticed many things that didn’t make it in to either of my two posts, but that’s always the way these things are. You can’t get everything in, ever. The idea is to say what you need to say in order to make a coherent argument.

I’d set out to demonstrate that there was a coherent logic in this cartoon and that’s what I did. In my first post I argued that it had six sequences that differed from one another in their internal construction and action. In my second post I amended that analysis and argued for seven sequences.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about the film, and the thinking has been of the sort that demands written form. So here I am, starting a third post about Porky in Wackyland. I’m satisfied with the analysis into seven sequences, but I’d like to say a bit about one of those sequences, the fifth one, where Porky finally meets the do-do.

Through the faucet to the do-do

As this sequence opens Porky is passing a Wackylander wearing a sandwich board offering information about the do-do:

Wacky porky inquires

Porky asks where to find the do-do and he receives this response, which is not very helpful:

Wacky thataway

The vendor regroups, however, and makes Porky another offer:

Wacky this way

Notice that this frame depicts a situation that is physically impossible: Where’s the Wackylander? He’s not behind the sandwich board. He appears to be inside some space that opens through one half of the board. But that’s not consistent with other information in the image. 

Winter Graffiti, plus

a well-trod path.jpg

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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Wackyland Redux

I continue to think about Porky in Wackyland and have decided to make another post about it. I missed something important in my earlier post and want to amend that analysis. There’s an extended gag involving a three-headed creature that comes in the middle of the cartoon. It deserves a close look.

Three Stooges in Wackyland

I’d argued that Wackyland has six major sequences:
1) Title sequence
2) Porky takes us to Wackyland
3) Audience immersed in Wackyland wackiness
4) Porky finds the do-do
5) Porky chases the do-do
6) Porky captures the do-do
I’m now inclined to think there are seven major sequences. There’s a segment at the end of the third sequence involving a Three Stooges gag that really needs to be separated out as an independent sequence. It’s musically distinct from what came before and takes place against a different background. That sequence runs about 28 seconds or so, from 3:35 to 4:03.

So the third sequence in the earlier analysis now becomes two sequences (3 & 4), for a total of seven:
1) Title sequence
2) Porky takes us to Wackyland
3) Flower-to-Flower: Wackyland on Parade
4) Three Stooges pawn sign
5) Porky finds the do-do
6) Porky chases the do-do
7) Porky captures the do-do
Let’s start with sequence 3, which I’ve renamed “Flower-to-Flower: Wackyland on Parade.” As I indicated in the earlier post, it starts with this flower-character:

Wacky nose flute

First the character is playing a pastoral melody through its nose; then it shifts to a drum solo as the music shifts gear to big-band jazz. Porky’s no longer on screen. For about a minute the action become very busy, wild music and lots of stuff on screen. There’s no central character or action to follow, but Porky reappears about halfway through the sequence as a peripheral character who reacts to what’s going on around him. He then disappears and the flower creature reappears, again playing a drum solo. The solo ends as the creature bashes himself in the head and ‘folds’ into the flower, which then withdraws into the ground:

Wacky man-flower fold 2

That’s the end of this sequence, which is clearly marked by the flower creature at the beginning and the end. There’s more happening in this sequence than one can parse in one viewing; it’s too complex and chaotic.

There’s an immediate segue, including slow moody music, to this:


Tree and Sky

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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Throttled by the Military-Industrial Complex

Just before he left office in January of 1960, President Eisenhower famously warned against become inextricably bound to the "military-industrial complex." But, as James Ledbetter informs us on Blogginheads.tv, he was aware of the problem much earlier. Here's an excerpt from a speech he gave in 1953:
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone.

It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities.

It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population.

It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some 50 miles of concrete highway.

We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat.

We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.
Will ever escape the grasp of this terrible logic, which continues to impoverish us?

Control Freak

Coping Mechanism

Monday, January 17, 2011

Porky in Wackyland

Porky in Wackyland is regarded as one of the finest cartoon shorts ever made. Directed by Bob Clampett for Warner Brothers, it was released in 1938 in black and white in the Looney Tunes series. Like many shorts, it has little plot to speak of. The story is straightforward: Porky Pig goes searching for the last of the do-do birds; finds him; but there’s a catch. The cartoon gets its dramatic interest from its gags, one after the other. In a sense, this whole cartoon is a gag, a gag called Wackyland.

The cartoon signals its waywardness just before the title sequence ends. A newsboy enters from the right, hawking a special edition about Porky’s expedition to find the do-do:

Wacky title

The intrusion of the cartoon proper into the title sequence puts us on notice that this is not going to be an ordinary gagfest. Yet, wacky though the film is, it is not without a simple dramatic order. The object of this post is to sketch that order.


* * * * *


The first task is to transport us from the newsboy in our world to Wackyland. The first move is simple; the newsboy holds the paper up so we can see it, full screen:

Wacky Paper

That front page is on the screen for 16 seconds before it fades to a shot of Porky in his plane in the air. That’s more than enough time to read the headlines, which are all that’s readable (at least on my DVD). Porky does a bit of flying, holds up a photo while telling us that, yes, this is the do-do, and then the camera zooms out so we can see the whole world. Porky’s plane flies a convoluted path toward Wackyland, which is in Africa.

Wacky Globe

As the plane goes over Africa, we get a progressive gag. First it flies over a background in medium gray, which is labeled “Dark Africa” – at this point I suspect that many viewers will have anticipated what’s going to happen next. Then the plane’s over a darker area: “Darker Africa.” At this point one can feel pretty sure that Wackyland will be in an area of Africa that is black on the map and that is labeled “Darkest Africa.” And that’s what happens.

What doesn’t happen, however, is that Wackyland is populated with jungle flora and fauna and restless natives with bones through their noses and big kettles all ready for cooking missionaries. While such things were common enough in cartoons – think of the cartoons the Fleisher Brothers did with Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong – Clampett doesn’t call on those clichés. The only significance of this “darkest Africa” is that it is remote, very remote.

Once we’re through that gag the camera zooms in on Porky and his plane and we see them land in an area that doesn’t seem particularly African or wacky. Look closely at the relationship between Porky and the plane:

Wacky landing

The plane is treated as an extension of Porky’s body, with the landing gear becoming an extension of his legs. That image, it seems to me, typifies the nature of the cartoon medium. The distinction between man, umm, err, pig and machine is all but obliterated; the machine itself has become animated and shares in the life of the pig.

Ice on the Pond

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shades of ice losat.jpg

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Song of Israel Kamakawino'ole

One of my Facebook friends just linked to a YouTube video of Israel Kamakawino'ole's masterful rendition of "Over the Rainbow." You've probably heard one of his recordings of the song, perhaps the version where he inserts "What a Wonderful World" into the middle, for it was all over the airwaves in the mid-90s. Here's a piece I published in The Valve a few years ago.
Sometime in 1993 Israel Kamakawiwo'ole called his producer at 2AM and asked him to set up a recording session ASAP. He records a handful of tunes, just his voice and ukulele, one tune after the other, all single takes, and goes home. One of those takes was a medley that inserted “What a Wonderful World” into “Over the Rainbow.” The medley was issued on Kamakawiwo'ole's 1993 CD, Facing Future. In 1998 the medley was on the soundtrack of Meet Joe Black. In 2005 Facing Future went platinum (1M or more units sold), the first Hawaiian album to do so. (Record label site for Kamakawiwo'ole.)

In this post I want to take a look at that medley and its subsequent history. The two songs in the medley are standards - a term of art in discussing pop music of the Big Band era and more recent music of that kind. Judy Garland recorded “Rainbow” for The Wizard of Oz at the height of the big band era, 1938. It became an instant hit and has been recorded hundreds of times. Armstrong recorded “Wonderful” in 1967, when big bands had been thoroughly eclipsed by rock and roll. It became a hit in the UK, but not in the USA. Armstrong's recording got a second chance when it was used on the soundtrack of Good Morning, Vietnam in 1987. Though not the first, Kamakawiwo'ole's cover of the song was one of the earliest.

RAINBOW WONDERFUL

To a first approximation “Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World” are similar: both are ballads, both are 32 bars long (divided into four 8-bar sections), and both are wistfully optimistic. That's what makes it so easy to arrange them into a medley.

But Kamakawiwo'ole did more than simply concatenate them; he striped them down and reconstructed them. As far as I can tell, he recorded the medley twice; the 1993 recording is the second version. The first version appeared on his first solo album, Ka 'Ano'I, issued in 1990. On this recording Kamakawiwo'ole is backed by a small ensemble: trap drums, bass, rhythm and lead guitar, and perhaps a ukulele - I can't parse the strings very well.

IZ, as Kamakawiwo'ole known familiarly, opens with a spoken statement - “Woke up early this morning” - then we have a short instrumental passage leading to “Over the Rainbow.” The tempo is medium rather than a slow ballad, as is common with both of these songs. IZ sings the melody straight until he gets to the eighth bar. Instead of holding on the tonic in his lower register, as composed, he improvises a riff that leaves him in the upper middle register when bar 9 rolls around, which requires a repetition of the opening melody. Rather than drop down to the lower register for that melody, however, IZ remains in the upper middle register and re-composes the melody to suit his conception.